BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The task, like it has so many times throughout Tom Brady’s career, seemed impossible. But if you could travel back in time to 1999, before the five Super Bowl titles, before rescuing 28-3 against the Falcons, before this year’s seemingly inevitable second-half comeback against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game, you’d land in State College, Pa., only to see a 10-point deficit against Penn State that would have felt at the time like a certain loss for Michigan with a Big Ten title hanging in the balance.
There were eight minutes left that afternoon on Nov. 13, 1999, when Brady, still 62 yards away from the end zone, had to call timeout because Michigan had the wrong personnel group on the field for the play offensive coordinator Mike DeBord had called.
“This was in the critical drive of the game and we needed to conserve timeouts and coach (Lloyd) Carr is in the headset saying, ‘Why is he calling timeout?’ ” DeBord, now at Indiana, recalled in a phone interview last week. “I said, ‘Coach, that’s not Tom’s fault. That’s my fault.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, Brady doesn’t make mistakes.’ ”
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To go back and watch what happened from there arguably provides the formative moment for the comeback magic Brady is still producing nearly two decades later. A 15-yard scramble to midfield was followed by a quick 20-yard rope to David Terrell, then a pump fake and throw down the left sideline that drew a pass interference penalty. Then Brady, with 3:28 left, dropped back and waited for the middle of the line to open up, reaching for a touchdown that brought Michigan back within a field goal.
Since then, few leads against him have ever been big enough.
“You could see it, you could feel it,” said Boston College offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, a former Michigan quarterback who was a graduate assistant on the 1999 team. “There was never a game you were out of when that guy is behind center.”
Brady won that day at Penn State, of course, getting the ball back and hitting receiver Marcus Knight with two big passes, scoring so quickly on a corner route that Michigan actually had to force a fumble with 53 seconds left to preserve the victory.
That game was the first of three straight Brady won with late touchdown drives to end his senior season at Michigan, a period of his career that often gets overlooked because of what he’s accomplished in the NFL.
But it’s also important context for the aura of inevitability he’s created with 42 fourth-quarter comebacks and 53 game-winning drives in the NFL, 11 of which came in playoff games.
“He has a demeanor about him that he never gets low or sky high,” DeBord said. “He’s always even-keel, and I think that’s one of the reasons he has these comebacks is he’ll get a little fiery and want to fire guys up but he’s so even keel. I think that’s a big part of it. He’s also obviously very smart, he’s very talented and he’s one of the most accurate quarterbacks ever so when you put that together you come up with these comebacks.
“He had to start this somewhere. I think it started in college, so he knows that he can do it and he’s going to do it. He just has that mindset that no game is out of reach.”
After a 24-17 win over Ohio State to wrap up the conference title — a game in which Brady drove 77 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown with 5:01 left — Michigan wound up in the Orange Bowl against an Alabama team that had blown out Florida 34-7 in the SEC championship.
For Michigan, which entered the game as roughly a field-goal underdog, the gameplan was to try and stay balanced on offense. But DeBord figured out quickly the Wolverines were not going to get much done running the ball, and they trailed 14-0 before scoring just prior to halftime.
“I told coach Carr, we’re just going to have to let it go,” DeBord said. “They’re stacking the box and it’s going to come down to the throw game and Tom winning it. He’s got to win this game for us.”
Still, it was a huge uphill climb for Brady after falling behind 28-14 with 8:29 left in the third quarter. But somehow, Michigan dominated the rest of the game, setting the stage for overtime when he hit tight end Shawn Thompson wide open for a touchdown. Michigan won it 35-34 when Alabama scored on its overtime possession but missed the extra point, sending Brady out with a 10-2 record and No. 5 ranking in his final season.
“I think we threw the ball 90% of the game in the second half, and he played remarkable,” Loeffler said. “Then I remember sitting in the stands at his first Super Bowl (two years later), the minute they got the ball back I literally looked over and went, ‘This game is over.’ And they marched down and kicked the field goal to beat the Rams. You just knew it. If you’ve been around him, he gets the ball at the end of the game, it’s over. He’s going to find a way to win. He did it in college and the NFL at the highest level and there’s not many guys that have the come from behind wins he does.”